Bringing It Back:
An Interview with Thom Andersen about Los Angeles Plays Itself
by Andrew Tracy

Reverse Shot: Los Angeles Plays Itself originally arose from an idea you had for an illustrative lecture. Was the film in any way shaped by the way you teach, by your methods and sources?

Thom Andersen: I taught some classes at Cal Arts, which do depend on showing excerpts from films. I taught one class on screenwriting, and one on Gilles Deleuze’s cinema book, which influenced this movie in a certain sense in that what I say about neorealism, the way I privilege the idea of neorealism, was influenced by Deleuze’s treatment of it. One thing that struck me in relation to that was how Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979) was such a perfect exemplar of Deleuze’s ideas about neorealism, about how neorealism was not simply a matter of photographing life as it evolved, but also opened up cinema to what he calls the ‘time-image’—that is, an image in which memory is controlling the movements of the image.

RS: You speak about myths quite often in the film, the “secret histories” of Chinatown (1974), L.A. Confidential (1997) and even Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1989), all of which you’re fairly disparaging about, at least on an ideological level. But there are other myths you refer to positively, especially the “lost Eden” idea in films like Warhol’s Tarzan and Jane Regained. . . Sort Of (1964), Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Fred Halsted’s “gay porn masterpiece” L.A. Plays Itself (1972). What makes these “good” myths in your eyes, unlike the first group?

Andersen: Let me start with an anecdote, if I could. A week or two ago, UCLA was running six programs of films about Los Angeles, inspired by my movie. In one program, they showed Cisco Pike (1972), which was made by an old friend of mine, Bill Norton. It was Kris Kristofferson’s first film, he’s this down-and-out folk singer who gets into selling marijuana. After the screening, a friend of mine said “Los Angeles looks like it was a lot more fun in those days.” I said “It was.” I’m not sure that’s true, but that’s how I feel. It’s changed a lot since then, for better or worse. But there was back then, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, more of an interplay between city and country then there is today, and I think that was one of the attractions of the city throughout the first two-thirds, three-fourths of the 20th century. It was a city that was very much in touch with nature, with the mountains, with the landscape, the ocean. Now that’s become much more the privilege of the upper classes, it’s less accessible to most people. So when I talk about Warhol’s movie, or Fred Haldsted’s movie, or Maya Deren’s movie, and how they paint Los Angeles as a kind of countryside, that to me is a mythology that was real.

RS: You think it’s a mythology that’s more valuable than the one portrayed in Chinatown?

Andersen: Yeah, I think so. One movie that I almost included in the film but didn’t was Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), because that to me is kind of the definitive statement of the southern California dream, which could only be articulated once there was a sense that it was lost. I think that’s behind Chinatown too, but when Chinatown tries to articulate what was lost in more concretely political terms, it’s not quite adequate.

In a way, it’s unjust to Chinatown when I say it’s bad history. Because when I reject the historical sense behind the myth of Chinatown, I’m doing that from a perspective that was made possible by Chinatown, because Chinatown produced a lot of interest in studying the Los Angeles aqueduct, the water project, and that study led to much more nuanced views about Los Angeles and the people of the Owen Valley. So we’re judging Chinatown on the basis of a lot of historical knowledge that wasn’t available to Robert Towne when he was writing the script. But on the other hand. . . well, there is this notion that Los Angeles, like many places, was a paradise when it wasn’t too populated, and when more people move in, that creates pressures. So, to talk about a kind of paradise on the basis of an under-populated area is a certain kind of . . . I don’t know if “elitism” is the right word, but there’s something a little false about it.

RS: Chinatown is one of the major turning points you identify in the film, when the realization of the city as a character begun by Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) extends to a consciousness of Los Angeles as a historical entity. And it was also one of the high points in this kind of cinema of pessimism, this myth of our supposed helplessness in the face of power. What do you think makes that myth so appealing to us?

Andersen: Let me say one thing in relation to Chinatown. To me, the key line of Los Angeles Plays Itself, which it seems a lot of people haven’t picked up on and I haven’t talked about, because it is kind of a throwaway, is at the end of the Chinatown section: “As usual, this is history written by the victors, but a history written in crocodile tears.” What I mean by that is we here in the United States—and other countries too, I suppose—celebrate the losers of history while actually dishonoring their goals and their aspirations. For example, the only person now who has a national holiday named after him in the U.S. is Martin Luther King, Jr., and yet it’s his enemies who are running the country. People like Trent Lott, or William Rehnquist, who started his career in the Goldwater campaign in 1964 by trying to discourage black voters in Arizona from voting. Now in the U.S. there’s a stamp with Paul Robeson’s picture on it, although Paul Robeson was probably the most reviled American citizen of the first part of the 20th century. In California, there’s a state holiday devoted to Cesar Chavez, at a time when all of the gains he won for farm workers have been lost. Their situation now is about the same as when he started out, and that’s after a period when they were making some significant progress in terms of wages, better health care, the right to organize. That’s all been lost, yet we celebrate his life while trampling on everything he tried to accomplish.

RS: So these “secret histories” are a means of burying serious consideration of these issues, of relegating them to the past so that we don’t have to deal with their present reality.

Andersen: I think so. A great example in the U.S. is people’s attitudes towards the various Indian nations. Just as those were being destroyed, the Indians were being romanticized as a kind of nobler people. It seemed that that kind of romanticizing was necessary for people to reconcile themselves to the total eradication of this culture. If we can put these things in the past and regard them as historical tragedies rather than part of an ongoing struggle, in a way it allows us to maintain the same attitudes that we’re decrying.

RS: I came across this quote by Serge Daney where he says that “the images are no longer on the side of the dialectical truth of ‘seeing’ and ‘showing’: they have entirely shifted to the side of promotion and advertising, the side of power.” Much of your movie deals with this very idea of power, of those who control film images and of those who try and fight back.

Andersen: I’m happy that the work that I’ve done in this movie has led to a rediscovery of some of these movies, like Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961) and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984) in particular, and Bush Mama also. I’m glad I’ve helped people to rediscover these movies, which were always available if people searched, but because they were totally independent, and there was no powerful corporation behind them pushing them, people have lost sight of them.

RS: Similarly, you note in the film how so many movies about Los Angeles tend to exclude people who live there, to render them invisible—not just minorities, but even those who simply don’t work in the entertainment industry.

Andersen: Well, people make films about what they know. When Steve Martin wrote L.A. Story (1991) he was writing about the people he knew and the places he knew. In a way Los Angeles is still a lot of villages grouped together. Martin occupies one village, Robert Altman occupies one village. In The Long Goodbye (1973), Altman used his own house as the house where Sterling Hayden lives. It’s in what’s called the Malibu Colony, which is a very exclusive beachfront community.

RS: And yet Altman has always painted himself as the great Hollywood outsider.

Andersen: Yes, well. . .

RS: Is this why you rail against the rampant mythification of Los Angeles, because it conceals so much of the actual living that’s done there, the actual history it possesses?

Andersen: It’s true that Los Angeles has always been a city of immigrants—that’s kind of a cliché, but it has a certain truth. When you talk to people, you find that no one was born in Los Angeles, everybody who lives there comes from somewhere else, which is maybe why it doesn’t have a living history based on collective memory. And I think that’s particularly true of people in the entertainment industry, they come to Los Angeles from somewhere else and they don’t have a sense of the city’s tradition and the city’s life. It’s something that people are just starting to become self-conscious about. In a way, Los Angeles is a city which is entirely defined by tourists’ perceptions, because a lot of the residents—at least those residents who are influential, who write and direct movies—are essentially tourists.

RS: In Cinema Scope, you stated that, to you, materialism is a good thing, that there’s “a kind of primitive, crude truth in literalism that can lead one to, let’s say, more sophisticated truths.” Do you think that these kind of places are Los Angeles’ biggest repository of culture, of a shared history?

Andersen: There are certain places and certain buildings in Los Angeles that have come to represent that for a lot of people. I think in a way it’s maybe a little false. Like Eric Hobsbawm says in his book The Invention of Tradition, often what we think of as age-old traditions are actually fairly recent inventions. People tend to invent tradition after the fact. But they are necessary, and I do respond to them emotionally. Like a restaurant that’s 100 years old, say. Or the Angels Flight [Los Angeles’s legendary vertical railroad], which by the way just had its 100th anniversary, which passed without observation because of its ignominious fate. After the accident in 2002 when it closed down, it was discovered that it was rebuilt in an irresponsible way, and it’s something that’s almost been covered up, kind of like people are ashamed of what happened and they don’t want to acknowledge it. I think Los Angeles is a city which has a reputation for destroying its own past, but it seems that’s true of most cities these days.

To mention Hobsbawm again—I was reading his memoirs recently, Interesting—he talks about a number of cities where he’s lived over the years, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Berlin, Vienna. He says that whereas a city like Paris is no longer a city, he recognizes it as the same city he knew when he was young, because the whole city has been turned into a gigantic gentrified bourgeois ghetto. The U.S. cities, despite the changes that have occurred over the past 50 years, are still recognizable as the same place. But I think what’s happening in Los Angeles is kind of what’s happened in Paris. That’s kind of the ideal of city planners and developers, that’s what they’re trying to do with downtown Los Angeles now, to turn it into a bourgeois ghetto and displace poor people, particularly the Mexican and Central American immigrants.

RS: Of course, that’s another major theme of your film, the city’s undeclared war on the underclass, such as the defeat of the public housing initiative in the Fifties or the gutting of the public transportation system.

Andersen: That’s another aspect which not everyone recognizes: that sense of the public sphere and its importance. Public transportation has this kind of peculiar position in Los Angeles. Unlike Toronto or New York, these older cities where people of all classes use the public transportation system, in Los Angeles there’s a sense of taking the bus as an experience of being proletarianized. People are afraid of it. And of course when people have that sense of the public sphere, it begins to decline. It’s happened not only with public transportation, but with public schools. Again, there’s a sense of public schools as something you want to avoid if you aspire to a certain status in life.

RS: I noticed an amusing little parallel in the film. You devote a large section to Hollywood’s desecration of Los Angeles’s great modernist architecture, over which you express great horror—and then later you confess to a vicarious delight in watching the scene in The Terminator (1984) where Schwarzenegger massacres a station full of cops.

Andersen: Yeah, I hope people don’t laugh at it.

RS: It is kind of funny.

Andersen: I thought so.

RS: You talk about the police a lot in the film, especially in the section on L.A. Confidential, where you note that the cops didn’t control the rackets, they controlled the city. What were some of the most prominent centers of power in Los Angeles? I gather the cops have been a fairly oppressive presence throughout the city’s history.

Andersen: Yeah, for me and for a lot of people they were. One police chief, I can’t remember which one, was asked if he wanted to run for mayor, and he said “No, that would be a step down.” The center of power represented by the Los Angeles Times has been important as well, although I think people today probably give it too much importance, because now that the Times has become the only area-wide newspaper, people forget that it was only one of six competing newspapers in the first half of the 20th century, and not even the one with the largest circulation. There have been various businessmen’s clubs and alliances, and there’s always been this conflict between downtown interests and suburban interests. So Los Angeles does have these different centers of development and dispersed downtowns, which you can see geographically in these areas, these clusters of high-rise buildings.

RS: You’ve said that seeing L.A. Confidential was the inspiration for your film. Have you read many of James Ellroy’s books? What do you think about his vision of Los Angeles?

Andersen: I think Ellroy is kind of a mythologer. I mean, on the one hand you have Ellroy’s vision of Los Angeles, and on the other hand you have that of D.J. Waldie. Waldie grew up in one of the first post-WWII suburban planned communities, Lakewood, I think. He wrote a memoir, a history called Holy Land. For me, Waldie’s vision is much more true than Ellroy’s, but Ellroy’s is better known and more appealing to people because it’s more sensational, it’s more like a movie. It’s based on ideas of crime, of transgression, whereas Waldie’s vision is based on everyday life, the way people really live. It’s not that Ellroy’s vision is false to his own experience, but it’s appealing to people precisely because it’s an exceptional life—after all, most of us don’t have the experience of having our mother murdered while we’re in our childhood. So we kind of value the exceptional rather than the normal, but it’s through the normal that we come to understand life better.

RS: In Cinema Scope, you mention that when you first saw The Exiles in the Sixties, you weren’t too impressed because you were far more interested in the New Wave, in a more formalist cinema. Now you’ve become something of a champion of literalism, of the realities buried in fictions. What kind of cinema do you value today? How have your positions changed over the years?

Andersen: Well, movies have changed also. I think for better or worse Hollywood movies have gotten somewhat formalistic. The movies that I value today do come from a kind of neorealist tradition. Someone like Hou Hsiao-hsien, or Kiarostami…

RS: The Dardennes, maybe?

Andersen: Yeah, I like their movies a lot. There’s a line by Roland Barthes which I’ve taken to quoting frequently which kind of sums it up. He says “a little formalism takes us away from life, and a lot of formalism brings us back to it.” That’s my ideal these days, I guess.